Barry Kitchener, Harry Cripps, Teddy Sheringham, Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill, Neil Harris, Paul Robinson. There have been many players who, whenever Millwall fans reminisce, will eloquently wax lyrical about how these are some of the greatest/hardest/most terrifying players they have ever seen at the Old and New Den. Players who we remember growing up watching wishing we could be, who we would cheer and chant their names from the stands and terraces. But what about the others? The players who when we find old programmes in the garage, we would flip it over and have completely forgotten that these players played a part in successful teams of the past. The ‘Steady Eddies’ who may not have scored hat-tricks or hit crunching tackles every week, but those who were reliable and wouldn’t let you down.
For this edition of Unsung Heroes, we look back at a player who was part of one of the most successful sides in recent history and appeared in an FA Cup marking a certain Cristiano Ronaldo....
Robbie Ryan had already played a handful of games in English Football for First Division Huddersfield Town, before signing for Division Two side Millwall in January 1998. Costing a minimal fee for the Lions halfway through the 1997-98 season, Ryan went straight into the side and made his debut in the 0-0 away draw against Southend United. The Irish full-back instantly impressed for Billy Bonds’ side and featured in a number of games for the rest of the campaign, but apart from the 2-1 away victory at Fulham FC and 1-0 home wins against Gillingham and Burnley, the season turned into one of disappointment for the South London side and Millwall finished the season in 18th place on 55 points, only 5 points clear of the bottom four. The fans in the stands were not happy with the tactics and employment of Bonds and the twist and shouting at The Den resulted in the dismissal of the former West Ham man at the end of the season. Ryan finished the 1997-98 season playing 16 games, but without getting on the score sheet.
A new manager saw an upturn in form in the 1998-99 season and under the employment of club legend Keith Stevens, the Lions produced a better brand of football that was more enjoyable to experience. Ryan was again a staple in the Millwall defence and played in some big victories for the Lions such as the 2-0 win against Lincoln City, the 3-1 win against York City and the 3-1 win against Wigan Athletic. Although in competition for his position with Jamie Stuart, Ryan was one of the first names on the team sheet for the Lions, but his season was cut short and his last game was in the 3-1 home defeat to Nott County in March 1999. Millwall’s position improved and Ryan’s energetic and consistent performances contributed towards the Lions’ overall league finish of 10th place and 62 points, but the defender missed out on the Auto Windscreens Final and an appearance at Wembley Stadium which Millwall went on to lose 1-0. Ryan finished the season with 29 more games to his name, but again failed to get on the score sheet.
The 1999-2000 season saw an addition to the Millwall managerial hot-seat, as Alan McLeary joined Rhino as joint manager and there was also an addition to the amount of games that Ryan played in for the Lions. Millwall continued to build on the successful resurgence from the season before and recorded a 4-1 away win against Scunthorpe United, a 5-0 win at home against Reading and a 4-1 victory at home against Bristol City and these victories contributed towards a 5th place and an impressive 82 points. Featuring in the vast majority of games, Robbie Ryan excelled again in the defence, but a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Wigan Athletic condemned Millwall to another season in the English third tier. The full-back added to his game tally and featured in 40 fixtures in the 1999-2000 season, but again no goals were scored.
Millwall were flying high in the 2000-2001 season and the defender was an important part of the squad that saw promotion to Division One as league champions with 93 points. Although successful, it was a topsy-turvy campaign as Mark McGhee came in controversially to replace the hugely popular duo of Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary, but the Lions did not let the managerial unrest bother them and enjoyed some impressive victories including the 5-0 win against Oxford United, the 4-0 home victory against Bury, beating Colchester United 6-1 and the historic 5-0 win against Oldham Athletic on the last day of the season. Ryan featured in 48 games in all competitions in the 2000-2001 season and although he racked up 9 yellow cards, the goal tally remained at 0.
A return to a higher level of football in Division One was the result of Robbie Ryan and his team's promotion in the 2001-2002 season and it was another one of success. With a togetherness that had not been seen from a Millwall side since the late 80's, the defender was again an integral part of a side that surprised many and finished in 4th place in the second tier of English football on 77 points. Ryan featured in some memorable victories including the 4-1 away win at Watford, the 2-1 away win at Nottingham Forest and the 3-1 home win against Grimsby Town. The home fans were twisting the night away and were having to pinch themselves when the Lions had guaranteed a play-off place, but unfortunately for the South London side it was Birmingham who had misread the script and beat Millwall over two legs. Ryan did not feature in either game, but amassed an impressive 41 game in all competitions for the Lions, however once again he had a 0 in the goal scoring charts.
After a season of promise and dreaming of promotion, the 2002-2003 season was mixed for the team formerly from Cold Blow Lane. The first game of the season could not have gone much worse for the Lions, as Rotherham were 6-0 victors at The Den in the opening fixture. Millwall continued this run and did not secure a win in the next 5 fixtures, but there was an upturn in form after this when the Bermondsey side recorded a 2-0 win and a 1-0 victory against Grimsby Town and Brighton & Hove Albion respectively. This season saw the full-back feature in the vast majority of Millwall’s games and for the first time since joining the Lions, Robbie Ryan featured on the score sheet! A goal in the 2-2 draw with Gillingham on Boxing Day was followed by another at the beginning of January when he scored in the 4-0 home win with Watford. Millwall finished the season in a respectable 9th place on 65 points and Robbie Ryan featured in 46 games, scoring 2 goals.
Ryan’s final season at Millwall was arguably one of the most famous seasons of all time for the Lions. After a reasonable start to the 2003-2004 season, Mark McGhee was controversially sacked in October and replaced by midfielder Dennis Wise who took on the role of player-manager. Although there was a change in the hot seat, the Irishman was still an ever-present in the line-up and was a key member of the side who finished in 10th place on 69 points. The Lions were only 4 points off the play-off places and had memorable wins including the 3-1 away win against Ipswich Town, the 1-0 home win against Nottingham Forest and the famous 4-1 win against West Ham in the Mother’s Day Massacre. Along with the impressive Division One campaign, Robbie Ryan was part of the side who made the FA Cup Final for the first time in the club’s history and took to the field in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to face Manchester United. The full-back had the unenviable of marking a young Cristiano Ronaldo and although the difference in class was evident, Robbie Ryan was given a standing ovation from all the Millwall fans in attendance when he was substituted in the 74th minute. Ryan featured in 36 games that season and this also proved to be his last appearance in a Millwall shirt before leaving The Den in the summer.
In all, Robbie Ryan featured in 256 games for the Lions and scored 2 goals in his time at the club. After leaving South London, the defender went on to play for Bristol Rovers and a number of non-league clubs before retiring in 2008. Featuring in teams including Neil Harris, Tim Cahill, Steven Reid and Darren Ward meant that Ryan would never really grab the headlines, but he was an excellent full-back who will always be remembered as Mr. Consistent. Never letting the side down and proudly representing the club in high profile matches, Ryan will always be fondly remembered for the hard work he put in during his spell with Millwall.